|This is a story about jaded doubt, through which shines a skinny, pale, wavering ray of hope – a tale of ordinary folk not believing Government policy will “work”, yet trying to make the best of the poor situation all the same. This is the account of a Parliamentary Reception for The Energy Bill Revolution.|
|The nice young man with the thoroughly Welsh name, Rhys Williams, who’s been in the job for the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) for a sum total of 10 working days, if I’ve counted that right, sent me a shiny email invitation to a Summer Reception in The House of Commons, organised by the All Party Parliamentary Fuel Poverty & Energy Efficiency Group (FPEEG) and PRASEG. So orf I trotted to a feast of miniature canapes covered with dead things and a veritable sea of state-provisioned wine – which I didn’t touch a drip of. It was Summer, and very sunny and hot, and nationally-funded alcohol would have given me a migraine.
I took in the cool breeze of The Thames from the Terrace Pavilion – it seemed at high tide as there was lots of debris sloopily bobbing past. A Good Year blimp buzzed like a jar of wasps overhead – “Safety Together”, it read. I questioned, as a matter of national security, whether anything was supposed to be flying directly over the Houses of Parliament. It was pointed out to me that the wind was quite strong up there and the dirigible motors probably couldn’t keep it on a straight course over the river. Whilst I was supping my iced orange juice, I was buttonholed by Jimmy Devlin of the North West Tenants and Residents Assembly. We discussed a number of things, including : revolution (he thinks people are going to rise up and get their share, and I think people are too poor and busy to get political); fuel poverty and carbon savings (I agree with him that carbon taxation is going to create extra expenses for the poor, but I disagree with him over climate change, because I’ve studied the science); non-hierarchical community leadership (the old models are failing) and Freemasonry in the Police (he’s ex). We did agree that democracy is suffering from a lack of engagement, and that social breakdown in some cases is becoming violent. We also agreed that it seems that the Occupy movement has been infested or even misdirected (he said fragmented) by covert agents of the state. He indicated that a number of former environmental activists that he’s known are now strongly protagonist for the social justice agenda. He became scathing about UK Government policy on renewable energy, saying that it was astonishing that it had been recently announced that all subsidies for wind power and solar power would be gone by 2020.
Anyway, then we were both buttonholed by Geoffrey Beacon of Beacon Dodsworth. He’d been earwigging, and he wanted to know why I was against carbon pricing and taxation. I said, well, carbon dioxide is a virtual, negative commodity that nobody wants to pay for, so it will always get paid by the most vulnerable – so we would be better spending money in a positive, economy-stimulating way, such as investing in renewable energy and energy conservation. He said that a carbon tax of £400 per tonne would do the trick. I said that carbon will never be permitted to be priced at £400 a tonne – there are too many forces against it.
Well then, before any further debate could take place we were called in for the speeches. Up at the podium is Alan Whitehead MP. He says he’s not going to give a speech, but then outlines his support for the campaign in a number of points, which he then admits was rather like a speech, in fact, and then introduces Caroline Lucas MP (everybody has to keep biting their lips to stop themselves from saying “Leader of the Green Party”). As usual, Caroline cuts the situation down to the bones – the social elements of the Energy Bill are going to be the Green Deal (cheap loans for householders to do energy efficiency and renewable energy, financed by the new partly state-funded Green Investment Bank) and the Energy Company Obligation (ECO – an obligation on energy companies to enable transformation of “hard to treat properties” and provide affordable warmth, which will be funded out of energy consumers’ bills).
She said that the ECO Carbon Saving Obligation (CSO) will quite probably benefit rich property owners – and yet be paid for by bill increases for the poor.
Next up was Dr Hilary Emery, Chief Executive Officer of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), and she talked about the impact of fuel poverty on the young poor – as this is not often mentioned – whereas older people in fuel poverty often are. She said it wasn’t right that people have to choose between “eat” and “heat”. She invited two children from the NCB to speak – they were amazing.
Then we got to hear from Adam Scorer of Consumer Focus. He said that the Carbon Price Floor proposed for the Energy Bill (Electricity Market Reform) was “not my favourite choice of policy”, but that with the extra billions of revenue it could generate, a lot could be done to truly tackle Fuel Poverty.
Then, up last, was “Mr Energy Bill Revolution” Ed Matthew, who tried not to be too technical, but laid out a vision of energy efficiency being the basis on which the British economy could be resurrected – through addressing energy cost increases and providing employment. Ah, the sweet smell of new jobs.
I spoke to Adam Scorer after the speeches, and tried to clarify what he meant by showing distaste for the Carbon Floor Price proposals. I asked how realistic it was to ask the Government to give up all that juicy carbon revenue to social projects – given that a range of organisations and causes will be after the same pot of money – including the nuclear power bunch. He said that everything is impossible until it happens – and that despite support, the Energy Bill Revolution could be blocked so easily by a “Treasury says no” statement. He did say though, that without “wilful bloodyminded individuals” like Ed Matthew, “nothing would ever happen”.
I spoke to Ed Matthew – ex Friends of the Earth, and now with his own group Transform UK. He’s done some stuff on the Green Investment Bank and now he’s pushing the Energy Bill Revolution. We agreed that if we’re going to have carbon taxation or pricing of some sort, then we do need to make sure that we speak up for using at least some of this money for Fuel Poverty alleviation. With approximately (depending on how you count it) 11.5 million people in poverty (and approximately 2.5 million children), putting a carbon tax or price in place will only hurt the poor harder by increasing energy costs. There needs to be a mechanism that stops this from depressing economic activity any further than it is already squelched – a mechanism to address energy demand, create jobs and solve social issues is what’s required. He said that if there’s no carbon price floor, we would have to rely on revenue from the Emissions Trading Scheme – which will fluctuate more – and jeopardise investment confidence. We should be demanding carbon revenue for the right purposes – there’s a report they did with Cambridge Econometrics saying the same kind of thing.
I then went on to speak with people from Carillion – who were quite sceptical about the Green Deal – that many people could be ripped off by the fact that there will be multiple agencies involved in any one project – with each firm wishing to do their own assessments and possibly doing work the householders don’t need. The view was expressed that what needs to happen is that the Government stops wasting money on consultations, reports and consultancy and just invests in energy efficiency and energy conservation projects directly. We discussed how Local Authorities are expected to be handling the social aspects of the new Energy Bill – but that with shrinking budgets and ever-smaller staffing, energy conservation – such things as the Green Deal and fuel-saving Combined Heat and Power projects – are likely to never make it off the ground.
I went on to speak to Karen Klomp, Energy Strategy Officer at the London Borough of Lambeth. We discussed the primeval problem – that energy companies want to sell as much energy as they can, whilst climate change legislation requires effectively (until renewable energy is more prevalent) that total energy demand is reduced. We talked about which energy companies are evolving into Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) – which are training their own insulation, draught-proofing and renewable energy installers, and which are contracting this out (with all the problems this could entail).
I took the opportunity to mention to her that I am researching Renewable Gas (whilst being in the in-between phase of having completed a Masters degree and now wondering what to do with the rest of my life). I said I’m about to launch a survey to engineering and energy firms asking them about how much Renewable Gas they are making, and the trends. I said I was trying to raise this subject because some people are discussing the upcoming UK Government “Gas Strategy”. We disussed where gas in the UK economy is going to come from in future.
She spoke of various projects she is running – how they are trying to make the best use of various schemes and grants before they run out. She projected that she would be selling the idea of the benefits of the Green Deal to her local authority and related organisations. She and I agreed that policy as a whole was quite weak and compromised – but that this is what we’ve got to work with – so we need to run with it (or ice-skate – she is originally from The Netherlands, after all).
As I was leaving, I exchanged a wave and a nod with Jim Devlin. I asked him what he was going to do to promote the Energy Bill Revolution and his answer was : “wind 6.8 million residents up – and let them do the work”.
This is the briefing from The Energy Bill Revolution :-
“Families are suffering huge financial hardship, and one in four households can’t afford to heat their homes. Cold homes are damaging the health of our most vulnerable citizens, including children and older people. The Energy Bill Revolution is an alliance of more than 80 children’s charities, environment groups, unions, health & disability groups, consumer groups and businesses, calling on the Government to use the money it gets from carbon taxes to make our homes super-energy efficient. This is the only permanent solution to end fuel poverty and drive down energy bills. The Energy Bill Revolution could quadruple carbon emission savings compared to the Government’s new energy efficiency policies, and create up to 200,000 more jobs – exactly what we need to support the UK’s economic recovery.”
I am fully aware that this campaign could have been launched by Coalition empathisers to prop up the Energy Bill – which is widely being criticised (Greg Barker MP was supposed to attend but I don’t think I saw him. Maybe he was avoiding me. However, Chris Huhne MP did flit past at one point, and I saw John Prescott MP (with a walking stick) on the baize-green carpet stairs on the way out.)
Considering that some of the people in the room supporting the Energy Bill Revolution campaign could stand to benefit from the success of the Green Investment Bank, their motives might not be entirely charitable.
On the other hand, Fuel Poverty is a genuine social need, and addressing it could avoid people being driven further into deprivation. So, despite the fact that I think carbon pricing and taxation is entirely the wrong thing to do (instead we should invest positively in renewables and conservation), if this is the card we are dealt in the Energy Bill, then I think we should definitely “hypothecate” some of the revenue towards the alleviation of economic depression – for the sake of the kids.
More of a grudging acceptance to work with what we’re given rather than a “revolution”, though.